Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Because you seriously can’t have too much of this sort of thing, I am shamelessly stealing Alyssa Rosenberg’s idea of telling Hollywood how to fix itself and produce films about women, for women, starring women.

In her original piece, Rosenberg says that “the number of leading roles for women has actually fallen since 2002, from 16 percent of protagonists in top-grossing films to 12 percent.” TWELVE PERCENT. Yeesh.

Though I totally applaud her concept, I have to admit I am not familiar with a single one of the books she referenced. I read something else by Tamora Pierce one time, but that’s as far as it goes.

So, without further ado, here are my suggestions for stories Hollywood should be telling, and the actresses to help them tell those stories:

Jennifer Lawrence as Murcatto, ‘the Snake of Talins’, Best Served Cold

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books inhabit a very distinct world which is explored over many volumes. However, Best Served Cold is a standalone novel with a female protagonist I hesitate to describe as tough as nails. She makes nails look like they’re made of blancmange.

As you may gather from the title, it’s a grand revenge drama. Women never get to star in revenge dramas (with the notable exception of Kill Bill). It always bugged me in the Crow that after Eric Draven is murdered, and his girlfriend is raped and murdered – he’s the one who gets to come back for vengeance. Surely she was more wronged? More deserving of revenge and closure? Sigh.

So it’s a revenge drama, it’s also a heist – two things that Hollywood loves – and it’s insanely violent. In the wake of Game of Thrones, grim dark fantasy is big business. Hollywood, you are crazy not to be making this film already!

Sophie Turner and Stephanie Cole as Sophie Hatter in Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Now, I know Hiyao Miyazaki already did a pretty good job at a film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ much loved Howl’s Moving Castle. But two things: 1) we haven’t seen a live action version, and 2) it was a very loose adaptation. I would love to see a much more faithful version of the story: very English, very traditional.

Turner could do a good job of showing us Sophie Hatter as a mousey, put upon young shop assistant – nurturing a spark that will come to fruition by the end of the story. Cole would be marvellous as the cranky, forthright Sophie after she falls under a spell that ages her 90 years – and allows her to blossom into her true, assertive, magical self.

Saorise Ronan as Tally in Uglies, Pretties, etc

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy (later quartet) is perfect for Hollywood right now: dystopian societies on the verge of collapse! Underdog revolutionaries! And at the heart of it all a questioning of all our trivial, shallow, self obsessed values, of our desire to inhabit some perpetual arrested development. All that, plus some kick-ass action and extreme wish fulfilment makeovers (if you like that sort of thing). Ten years since it’s release, it’s only becoming more relevant to our celebrity trivia obsessed culture.

Ronan is a fine actress, and has action credentials (see Hanna). She has the kind of face that can be plain or stunning, depending how she’s presented. And although significantly older than Westerfeld’s protagonist, is able to play young. Make this happen!

Maisie Williams as Cat Royal in The Diamond of Drury Lane, etc

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia GoldingAfter her attention grabbing performance as the child refugee-turned-killer in Game of Thrones, I’m sure Maisie Williams has offers queuing round the block – probably for action-oriented roles. But I’d like to see her do something a bit different.

Julia Golding’s Cat Royal books are joyful, exuberant, perfect entertainment for children and adults alike. Cat is smart, passionate, impetuous, and kind-hearted. She’s more of an evader than a fighter, but she’s undeniably tough. I bet Maisie isn’t getting offered any roles like that, and I think she’d be great at it.

Raffey Cassidy as Melanie in The Girl with all the Gifts

The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
I’ve struggled to come up with a young lead for M R Carey’s terrifying tale of the sympathetic but deadly zombie girl on the run in post-apocalyptic London, but Raffey Cassidy fits the bill. She has a surprising amount of experience for such a young actress – she played the young Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman, and is set to co-star as a robot with George Clooney in Tomorrowland. She also has a definite look – you could believe there’s something a bit uncanny about her.

Hayley Atwell as Chava in the Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
Helene Wecker’s magical, wonder-filled tale of hard won love and understanding between a plain, Jewish golem and passionate Syrian Djinni is surely one that’s worth telling on the big screen.

Is it too obvious to cast Gwendoline Christie as the large, awkward golem, Chava? I think so. So how about the far less obvious Hayley Atwell? Yes, she’s gorgeous, but Hollywood can plainify her, and I think she exemplifies that warm, down-to-earth endurance that is central to Chava’s character.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Emily in Lexicon

Lexicon by Max Barry
Moretz has proved her acting and action chops in such diverse films as Let Me In and Kick Ass. She would be perfect as the vulnerable, manipulative, hyper-intelligent and ass-kicking Emily in last year’s barn-storming techno/psychological thriller, Lexicon by Max Barry.

So those are my picks for female-oriented films I’d love to see. What are yours? The joy of this exercise is that anyone could and should be doing it – the more the merrier. Perhaps eventually Hollywood will sit up and take notice?

Today is the first of May, and thoughts turn to the coming summer. If you could distil the essence of a perfect English summer day and transform it into music I think it would sound very much like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

If you are not familiar with it, you can listen here.

The music is achingly sweet, conjuring a powerful nostalgia for a make-believe bucolic past of lazy summer days idling in corn fields, of swimming in slow green rivers – a time when we were intimately connected to the earth and the seasons.*

I must have heard it several times when younger (I am sure it has been used on the soundtracks of many pastoral, period TV series over the years, probably things like The Mill on the Floss, or Tess of the D’urbervilles). But strangely, the first time I remember properly noticing it was on the soundtrack to a very good, but seemingly little known Australian film, The Year my Voice Broke.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but was struck by how incongruous it seemed played over the brittle looking Australian landscape; it is the most quintessentially English piece of music I know.

Although the location seemed wrong, in another sense the piece was absolutely right for the film. It is a bittersweet tale of young love, of the loss of innocence, and the sometimes painful entry to adulthood.

Bittersweet is precisely what The Lark Ascending seems to me; filled with heartache and yearning. Perhaps more so because everything it seems to represent is so rapidly disappearing from our world. But I think sadness was always inherent in the piece. Opinions differ on whether or not Vaughan-Williams was influenced by the outbreak of the first world war during its composition in 1914.

But regardless, I think that people of the early 20th century already saw their old ways rapidly disappearing in urbanisation and ever increasing industrialisation. I am certainly no expert on music history, but I suspect that pastoral nostalgia was already very much a part of its appeal.

All through 2014 BBC Radio 3 are collating a playlist of the best of British classical music. Nominated by members of the public, the playlist will feature 365 pieces by the end of the year.

I am nominating The Lark Ascending. Let Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the other 364 days. I think this piece says pretty much everything that needs saying about English music.

* I am of course aware that when we were ‘intimately connected to the earth and the seasons’ that is precisely because we spent long days of back breaking labour in all weathers. But that is the magic of music (or perhaps of indoctrinated association by way of TV and film) – we tend only to think of the idealised parts that must have made up less than 1% of actual lived experience.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Friday 13th

Jamie Lee Curtis in Friday 13th. One of the first films to scare the bejeezus out of me.

As a child I didn’t understand the words insomnia or paranoia. I thought it was normal to lie awake for a few hours every night before falling asleep – and to spend the time thinking about all the things in the world that might want to kill me.

During these hours of silent contemplation, I explored rudimentary philosophy (Is the universe infinite? Or does it have an edge? If it does have an edge what comes after it? What would it be like to be god? Wouldn’t it be really boring? What would you do for fun?), and took my first forays into story-telling, in order to keep myself entertained.

But what I also did a lot of was listening for creaking steps, and watching the shadows to make sure they didn’t move. I always wondered what I would do the time that I did hear the step upon the stair; when the shadows did move and form themselves into a long-taloned figure. Where would I go? I began to plan escape routes.

For most children, the answer would probably be that they bolt for their parents bedroom. Due to architectural strangeness, this wasn’t the most obvious option.

Although only a mid-terrace, 18th century mill-workers cottage, my childhood home is an extremely odd shape. It has two separate upstairs, which aren’t joined together. My sisters and I slept up one staircase; our parents and the bathroom were up the other staircase. This was ideal for covert midnight feasts; less good for escaping from psychopaths.

To get from my bedroom to my parents I had to: exit my room, go downstairs, cross the room, go up another flight of stairs, and cross another room. There was far too much scope in that journey for some other thing to get me. So I came up with alternate plans, most of which were some variety of getting out the window.

My bedroom had a sash window, which only opened about six inches – at the top of the window. Even if I could have squeezed out of that space, it wasn’t ideal that I would be on top of three feet of glass. So I thought I would smash the window to escape. But being an old house, the windows are leaded, the panes only about 4x6inches.

I was unsure as a child (and still am) how hard it is to smash lead (a quick google search has revealed nothing remotely relevant. No, I do not want lead-effect double glazing…) I was always unhappy about this area of uncertainty in my escape plan.

When I went to secondary school I became interested in pottery. I was pleased to install several large, hefty home-made pots on my window sill. I felt pretty confident that I could smash my way out of the window with one of those.

Whenever I stayed overnight at other places I looked for escape routes before I could relax sufficiently to sleep. It’s a habit that has never really gone away. I scrutinize the access from and to windows of any bedrooms I stay in. I try to visualise the route I would take in an emergency (not necessarily from axe-wielding maniacs, but perhaps from fire).

I was a little put out therefore to discover recently that one of my current escape routes is not as accessible as I thought.

Last week my partner and I had a key malfunction, and found ourselves locked out of the house. No problem, I though. We’ll borrow next door’s ladder, and I can climb through the little bathroom window. I have often thought that when a psychopath chases me through the house, the best bet would be to run for the bathroom, because it has a lock. That then allows me a few minutes grace to climb out the window before he smashes through the door.

I had never before tested how wide the window actually opens. It turns out, it doesn’t open very far.

I stood up the top of that ladder for a good five minutes, scrutinizing the lay of the land on the other side. I got as far as lifting my foot up through the window. I tried to envisage exactly how it was going to work, and where my weight would be at each moment. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was a doomed venture, likely to end in embarrassment, hospital and inability to get to work.

I called the locksmith (and a whole other adventure ensued there. Well, if you call it an adventure to sit on the driveway without any lunch, drink, or toilet for hours, and then some more hours…)

The sensible part of my brain is actually quite relieved to discover how hard it is to break in to our house. But I miss the (entirely unrealistic) comfort of having an escape route in mind. I think I’ll have to install something hefty beside the bedroom door, so that I can block it to buy myself sufficient time to climb out of that window…

I’m curious: is it just me? Or do others have similar preoccupations?

The close relationship between music and magic

First published December 2012 on The Speculative Salon.

At fifteen I was 5’8”, all knees and elbows, with a big mane of dyed red hair and army boots half way up my calf. I had started to learn the cello only a couple of years earlier. I was 12th (last) cello in the county youth orchestra, sandwiched awkwardly between the double basses and a gaggle of tiny eight year old cellists all far more accomplished players than me.

Consequently I felt ever so slightly conspicuous as I guessed at tuning my instrument, struggled to find my place in the score, and fudged my way through rehearsal after rehearsal. Despite a week’s intense practice I didn’t get much better, and my confidence plummeted. I was so worried about playing the wrong thing and ruining the piece, that when it came to the eventual performance at Buxton Opera House I mimed through most of it.

I gave up the cello shortly after that. I have grudgingly had to accept that I am just not a musical person. No one in my family is musical. Words are our thing. And food.

The Power To Mesmerise

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Those who are musically gifted seem very mysterious. I view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and a sort of distrust – they must be witches! How else could they control and harness that amazing power, and bend it to their will?

I feel it as a terrible loss in my life that I’m not musical. I love music – all kinds of music. But I don’t understand it in the least. What is a fugue? A partita? A canon? A gigue? What is the difference between a rhapsody and a fantasy? A concerto and a symphony? What makes something a prelude? Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun always confused me. I expected there to be a longer piece called ‘The Afternoon of a Faun.’ There isn’t.

When I used to sit at the back of the orchestra I couldn’t hear myself play. I had no idea how to pick my own sound out from the multitude of sounds around me. I had no idea if I was in tune, or if I was in time…

The ability to make music; to create one beautiful sound and then to weave it around other sounds, and to build a coherent, wonderful whole seems hardly less astonishing to me than the ability to move objects with the power of the mind.

Given this wonder and envy, it is perhaps not surprising that I have allied music with magic in much of my writing. In Darklands, Inkling is a powerful magician with a particular affinity for music. But he doesn’t play a violin, a flute or a piano. He plays the wind. He plays the dry grasses and the branches of trees. He sends the wind whistling around sculpted rocks, creating fluttering arpeggios. He conjures a soft, shushing rhythm from the treetops, and a mournful, clattering tune from living bamboo.

In my work in progress, a musician unwittingly exerts power over the ghostly protagonist, Kikimora. Her magical powers weaken whenever she hears him play, and she becomes visible to humans – which causes problems for them both.

His Inhuman Skill

Music has a long history of association with the uncanny, the fae, the devilish. One of the best known and most evocative examples must be the Pied Piper bewitching the children of Hamlin with his playing, and leading them astray. Celtic lore has fairies closely tied with musicians, particularly pipers. Musicians are far more likely than other mortals to be taken to fairy land.

Some, such as the blind 17th century harpist, Turlough O’Carolan, were said to acquire their musical prowess after spending a night on the fairy knoll.

This echoes the story of the violinist, Nicolo Paganini, widely believed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his inhuman skill and virtuosity. Early Blues musician Robert Johnson was similarly said to have sold his soul to the Devil – down at the Crossroads.

Both of these musicians knew a good story when they heard one, and they played up the unearthly aspect of their personas – Paganini by growing long wings of hair, and dressing all in black, Robert Johnson by singing such songs as Hellhound on my Trail, Me and the Devil, and Crossroads Blues.

And let’s not forget the role music has played in religion down the ages, from Gregorian chants, via plainsong, liturgy and mass, to American gospel music and beyond. Would religion grip the hearts and souls of so many without the uncanny power of music in its arsenal?

To Muddle And Misplace

Some music is so evocative of a certain time, mood or place that just hearing a short passage transports you instantly back there. Much of our unconscious musical associations come from film and TV. There is a certain type of English romantic music (typified by Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending) which never fails to make me yearn for an idyllic rural past that probably never existed. This is thanks to its use in countless period dramas on TV: Tess of the D’urbervilles; the Mill on the Floss, Precious Bane.

Another well used piece is the thrillingly dramatic Carmina Burana, which conjures everything from King Arthur’s knights riding into battle (Excaliber) to demonic murder (The Omen) to sexual ecstacy (The Doors).

Powerful music has the ability to imprint a mood into your soul; a mood which can be instantly recalled by hearing the music again. On a more humdrum level this is demonstrated when we hear music from our youth and become misty eyed over all the memories and associations it brings back – even music you didn’t like at the time.

When I was sixteen Brit-pop was all the rage; everyone loved Oasis – but I thought they were boring and whiny and not a patch on Sonic Youth or Pixies. I hear Oasis now and I don’t remember how I used to complain about them and groan and roll my eyes. I remember how it felt to be sixteen, and think that the world was my oyster; to not wake up every morning with back ache; to be full of hope and dreams and chutzpah that hadn’t yet been tempered by dusty reality…

But hang on – is that really what it was like? Or is the music fooling me? Didn’t I spend much of my teenage years paranoid and miserable? Didn’t I spend long hours obsessing about my intense ugliness, the dullness of my life, and dreaming that one day things would be better?

Music can deceive. It can muddle and misplace, and convince you of things that never were.

It can also inspire. Artists of every sort find inspiration in music. Marcus Sedgwick has described how Midwinter Blood is based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My above-mentioned work in progress, Kikimora, was directly inspired by a ‘fairytale for orchestra’ of the same name by Anatoly Lyadov.

Magic

Music can be mind-altering, reality-altering. It can affect the listener mentally, physically and spiritually. It can transport you through time and space. It can unlock memories long forgotten; it can sometimes trick us into believing things that never happened.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.


This post was first published in December 2012 on The Speculative Salon. I have reproduced it here as I have something to add.

Thanks to Howard Goodall’s excellent Story of Music I now do know the difference between a symphony and a concerto,* and much more besides! If you haven’t seen the six part BBC TV series, I thoroughly recommend looking it up. Goodall is excellent at explaining musical concepts. Admittedly some of it goes over my head a bit. But then, so do books about string theory and the quantum universe. I read them anyway, because each time I try to understand I get a bit closer to actually doing so.

Howard Goodall, I salute you!

* A concerto showcases one particular instrument with the rest of the orchestra as backup.

The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber

The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber

There is a peculiar and quite unique feeling of dread, dismay and curiosity when you begin reading a new book and find it uncannily similar to your own work in progress.

I had just such an experience last week reading The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber. The story concerns an ugly child raised by a natural philosopher type of magical person in an archetypal fairytale forest with the assistance of a wise cat and furry, forest dwelling being. This set up also describes my mid-second-draft work in progress, Kikimora.

The story includes several short stand alone fairy tales, as does Kikimora – though in The Witch’s Boy these are all novel re-tellings of traditional fairy tales, while mine are original.

My initial mortification mellowed somewhat as the story developed in a quite different direction to Kikimora. But then at the end, the similarities once more came thick and fast. It even veered off into a section on mining and being trapped underground. This idea forms a significant part of the climax for both The Witch’s Boy and Kikimora 😦

The awful thing is this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. Back in 2007, still smarting from my first rejection letter, I picked up this vampire book everyone kept going on about. Disbelief was followed by increasing outrage and mortification as each new similarity was revealed between my own rejected Shadow Hunter, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. I’m *still* mad about it (mainly because Twilight is so bad, but also because I’d been writing that book on and off, tweaking and altering it for the past 25 years!)

Shadow Hunter is a very different sort of story to Twilight, and the protagonist takes a vastly different path to Bella Swan, but too many details are horribly close, particularly near the beginning. The single thing that rankled the most is that Bella Swan is studying Macbeth as school – but it isn’t really important in any way; just a name mentioned. My protagonist is studying Macbeth at school – but I referenced it throughout the story, drawing parallels between Macbeth’s quest for power and rationalisation of his actions with those of my increasingly unhinged protagonist.

So I would have to lose a nice, nuanced recurring motif from my novel because it recalls a throwaway detail in Twilight. Grrs.

In that instance I shelved Shadow Hunter, and it about broke my heart. I get it out and look at it again every couple of years, thinking, could I salvage it somehow? Could I change some details? But like Macbeth, every element I look at seems essential to the mood, character, tone.

So now this has happened to me twice I find myself wondering how many other people must experience the same thing? It is after all common in Hollywood for two different films to plough the same furrow at the same time (Deep Impact v Armageddon? The Illusionist v The Prestige?)

Does it mean that I’m good at predicting zeitgeisty trends? Maybe. But the worrying thing is that if I keep having the same ideas as other people they will always pip me to the post, cuz I’m so slow meticulous :-/ Kikimora is by far my swiftest work so far, and that’s knocking on two years in progress. I’m beginning to think I’ll be lucky to release it this year.

So what do you do in this situation? Throw your work away in despair? Somehow try to work in some artificial and ill-fitting alterations? Plough ahead regardless and hope for the best?

Perhaps the important thing first of all is to take a deep breath and try to look at the problem objectively. Are the similarities really as glaring as you think? Or is your own heightened awareness of every tiny detail of your work causing you to inflate the issue beyond reason? (kind of like the way every time you look in the mirror you think your nose/bum/teeth are too big and hideous, but no one else knows what you’re talking about..?)

If possible get a second opinion from someone else. But that’s difficult if your work is still unfinished. It’s hard enough to hand over a polished draft to a friend for criticism, never mind an unfinished or hastily assembled draft for comparison with a published novel (which you will have to persuade your friend to also read).

Make a note of every similarity you find. Is it the plot? Is it the characters? Or is it more the details – the set dressing, the style? Could any of the similarities be changed without sacrificing the integrity of the story?

Also consider how well known is this other novel? I am of course not endorsing plagiarism of any kind or degree (For an interesting discussion of literary plagiarism see this post on Dear Author). What concerns me is the public’s perception of plagiarism. If most of the public has not read this other book, then you’re pretty safe. (This is another reason I simply shelved Shadow Hunter. The entire world has read Twilight. It is entirely irrelevant that I wrote the basics 25 years ago, and completed it before Twilight was published. I could dig out my faded and scribbled old notebooks to show people, but it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. If the book was known at all it would be known as that Twilight rip-off. Which is a greater indignity than I could bear.)

Ultimately, is a similarity between two stories as much of an issue as I imagine? As I already said, Hollywood does this all the time. If the public likes a thing they want more of it. Many stories bare similarities to other stories. So long as you are confident that you arrived at your ideas independently of this other source then perhaps it doesn’t matter?

I’d be interested to hear what other authors and readers think. Has this ever happened to you? What did you do about it? Have you ever read a book and thought, ‘Hang on, this is just like such and such a book!’ How did you feel about that? Did it bother you? Did you think less of the work you read second – even if you were assured of the author’s integrity?

I must have been feeling pretty arrogant confident the day I decided to write a novel set four centuries ago in a country I have never visited, and largely concerning an industry about which I know little – either in the present time, or how it was practised in the past.

My work in progress, Kikimora, has required a LOT of research. And every time I think I’ve done enough and can get back on with the story, I immediately butt up against another detail I’m not quite sure about…

Shane MacGowan of the Pogues

Shane MacGowan of the Pogues
[picture source: http://www.lemondrop.com]

18 months in I reached a turning point when I realised that making it too realistic would spoil the story.

Life was pretty miserable in the 17th century. It was squalid, rough, and disease-ridden. Justice and equality had far less meaning or import than class. Life was cheap, and none more so than peasant life.

Modern sensibilities do not sit easily on that foundation. We have to prettify it a little in order to connect with the characters. We would struggle to empathise with romantic leads who in their eventual clinch bring together sore lips, blackened teeth and foul breath; who are unaware of the concepts of tooth cleaning and deodorant; who might perhaps take a bath once a month, at best.

It’s good to bring in a taste of realism, of course. A certain grittiness is pleasant to read about as we sit in comfy, padded chairs in heated rooms, sipping hot drinks and nibbling chocolate biscuits. But too much realism would be overwhelming.

This is just one area in which reading has the advantage over watching films. Film-makers create their exact vision of the characters, sets, costumes, etc, and we the viewers see those characters and sets exactly the same way the creator did, and exactly the same way all the other viewers will.

But when we read a book there is a veil between what the author wrote and what we visualise in our minds. We might all read ‘dimpled cheeks’ or ‘kind eyes’, but the character I picture in my mind will be different to the character you see – and both will be different to the author’s vision.

Similarly, it is easy to ignore unpleasant details (so long as the author isn’t constantly bashing you over the head with them). You might know objectively that the historical protagonists will almost certainly have rotten teeth by their age, but since you can’t see it, and if the author doesn’t mention it, then it’s quite simple to picture them with beautiful white smiles. Most of the time I doubt we’re even aware that we’re censoring realism for a more pleasant storytelling experience.

It is far more glaring to watch a historically-set film but notice the heroine’s immaculately sculpted eyebrows, hairless armpits, carefully applied make-up, and perfectly straight, white, teeth.

A late update to this (April 2015)

I actually love Joe Abercrombie’s recent work, Half the World, and the grimy, awkward sex his protagonists eventually enjoy – all sour breath and uncertainty, but none the less passionate for it.

Hunger Games movie poster

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

So after a few years languishing in post-production limbo, is it any coincidence that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods has finally found a release at the same time as the Hunger Games? At first glance they are very different films, but they have a surprising amount in common.

Both feature a collection of young people thrust into an arena and made to fight for their lives for the entertainment of a baying crowd. Only one can/might survive. The young people behave as expected: fighting and dying – until one begins to question quite what is going on, and why.

Both feature virtually omniscient surveillance in an ostensibly wild environment, as well as climate control and other invasive ways to mess with the emperilled kids.

Both question the voyeuristic nature of entertainment and make sly digs at the culture of image-obsession. One of the things I really liked in Hunger Games was the utterly cynical approach to image and media manipulation. Having led a very poor and rough life so far, one of the first things to happen to Katniss upon her arrival in the capital is to be thoroughly waxed in order to make her presentable to the audience. In Cabin in the Woods, Jules is encouraged in her role of dumb blonde by the addition of behaviour altering chemicals to her hair bleach.

Cabin in the Woods poster

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

What zeitgeisty nuggets can we glean from this? I remember having paranoid fantasies about such levels of sinister observation when I was a kid back in the late 70s/early 80s. Back then it really was the stuff of sci-fi, but advances in technology mean that it is becoming increasingly plausible. This primal fear of being secretly watched, of being judged, of being manipulated in ways we can’t percieve – isn’t this simply the religious imperative at work? Isn’t this the same impulse that makes us imagine gods and angels and demons?

*** mild spoilers from this point on ***

Ultimately the survivors of the arena reject their allotted fate, and take the fight to the puppet masters (okay, I think you have to wait for the HG sequels for some of that, but the point stands). There is a lot to like about this scenario: defying fate, questioning those in power, railing at the gods.

Many people I know were underwhelmed by Cabin in the Woods, mostly I think because it wasn’t enough like a proper horror film. Fair enough, but I believe it’s something far more interesting: the slasher genre tortured to death and stuffed up its own fundament.* Plus, the nightmare creatures running wild finale was the most deliriously nutso thing I’ve seen on the big screen in years.

* of course, like any horror film villain, it will somehow make its return…